In an attempt to shed light on the controversy surrounding the funding of the new school in Ennis, the Madison County Commissioners have asked the Ennis School Board to conduct an independent and in-depth audit of their finances.
“Honestly, my hope is to get things out as openly as possible so this is all behind (the school board),” said commissioner Jim Hart. “I just want this thing to come out, get it cleared up and correct any errors that are there.”
The request from the commissioners comes only a few weeks after Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock issued an opinion stating the use of Adult Education and Transportation Funds to build the new Ennis school was illegal.
The Madison County Commissioners along with the Madison County Attorney solicited the Attorney General’s opinion. The commissioner’s involvement stems from concerns Madison County Treasurer Shelly Burke, county attorney Chris Christensen and other citizens have had about how the Ennis School District has been using tax money over the past several years, said commissioner Dave Schulz.
The Ennis School District recently completed construction of a $9 million school, which replaces an old school building that was in need of substantial repairs. About half the price of the new school came from money collected in the district’s adult education funds, which are collected through a non-voted levy.
The school board has repeatedly said they believed their strategy in funding the new school building with adult education funds was okay and approved by the Montana Office of Public Instruction. However, OPI officials have said they never endorsed the use of adult education funds for the new building.
With an audit, the county commissioners are hoping to get all the facts straight as to how much money was spent on the new school and what funds the money came from, Schulz said.
“I think, just like the people we’ve talked to, I’d like to see an audit to determine and address the issues referred to in the attorney general’s letter,” Schulz said. “I hope that the audit finds that everything that Ennis did was accurate and within its parameters but I’m concerned it won’t.”
The letter requests that an audit be conducted by an independent auditor, not the school district’s current auditor. It also outlines the funds within the school’s budget the audit should address.
“Should the audit find any discrepancies, illegalities, or questionable activities, the audit should further investigate and address those issues in detail,” reads the letter.
The letter also requests the school district pay for the cost of the audit and has some sharp words for the school board.
“Failure of the Ennis School District Board of Trustees to conduct such an audit in the face of such public scrutiny, Ennis School officials’ statements, and the Attorney General’s opinion would be an implicit acknowledgement that the trustees are failing to address the concerns raised by the public, the voters, Madison County Board of Commissioners, the Madison County Treasurer, the Madison County Attorney’s Office, the Office of Public Instruction, and the Attorney General’s office,” reads the letter. “If the Ennis School District Board of Trustees fails to conduct such an audit, the Madison County Board of Commissioners will do so to help restore the transparency and accountability of the Ennis School District.”
Hart, who was a teacher in Ennis before he was commissioner, is hopeful the school board agrees to the audit.
The controversy surrounding the new school and the school board has been tough on the community, the teachers, board members and – most importantly – the students, Hart said. Still, some people in the public have questions.
“So I think an audit will hopefully clear that up,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be cleared up now unless an audit is given.”
When reached for comment on Tuesday, Ennis School Board chairman Marc Glines had heard about the commissioner’s letter but hadn’t read it.
“Remember back when the county said they wanted an audit, and I said fine?” Glines asked. “The board has never been against an audit.”
However, the board will have to discuss the letter, seek advice from their attorney and determine how to proceed, he said.
“My personal feeling is the taxpayers are going to pay for it whether it comes out of the county or of the school,” Glines said.
Schulz expects the school board to address the county’s request at their next meeting March 13 and provide some response soon after.